Kevin Mcmahon | music director and conductor

Home   /   Concerts   /   Program Notes   /   February 7, 2015 Pro...
January 26, 2015

February 7, 2015 Program Notes


Born Votkinsk, Russia, 7 May, 1840; died St. Petersburg, Russia, 6 November, 1893.

Symphony No 1, in G minor (“Winter Dreams”), Op. 13

Composed in 1866 but first performed in its entirety, after considerable revision, at a Russian Musical Society concert in Moscow, 15 February 1868, Nikolai Rubenstein conducting. After further revisions, the next performance was at another RMS concert, 1 December 1883, Max Erdmannsdörfer conducting. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, cymbals, bass drum, and strings. Duration about 43 minutes.

Tchaikovsky’s “Winter Dreams” Symphony, composed when he was 26 though revised in the years to follow, is his earliest work to have a place in the standard repertoire. All the celebrated concertos, tone poems, ballets and operas, not to mention the other symphonies, postdate it—and yet “Winter Dreams” sounds unmistakably like Tchaikovsky, in the contours of its melodies and their accompanying figures, in the distinctive writing for winds and strings, and much else.

It is unknown why the composer chose the title “Winter Dreams” (the second word is often translated as “Daydreams” or “Reveries”) or why he gave subtitles only to the first two movements. It is speculated that he had in mind the “Scottish” and “Italian” Symphonies of Felix Mendelssohn (a composer he greatly admired) but somehow lost interest in giving descriptive titles to his scherzo and finale. In any case, many years later the composer told his patroness Nadezhda von Meck that a certain painting portraying a Russian winter landscape reminded him powerfully of the first movement of his youthful symphony.

I. Dreams [Reveries] of a Winter Journey. The movement is marked Allegro tranquillo, but it bristles with so much tension and excitement, and features such stormy climaxes, that relaxation hardly seems the main focus of this winter journey. Whether or not the opening bars evoke ice crystals in the air or perhaps (about a minute later) sleigh-bells on a troika, one cannot help but be struck by the opening melody played in unison by flute and bassoon, then picked up by the violas and eventually the violins, while a rumbling chromatic counter-theme makes its presence known as well.

The music rapidly builds to a dramatic climax, until a solo clarinet introduces a new, more lyrical theme, following the classic pattern of sonata form. But the development section is highly unconventional, quickly introducing a vigorous new theme before developing the opening melody. Following an especially stormy climax, a mysterious quiet passage for cellos and basses, joined by the horns, leads us back to the movement’s opening material, followed by a coda with its own agitated moments before returning us to the same restless quiet with which the movement began. Incidentally, most of the music in this movement is in 3- (or 6-) bar phrases, heard in much Russian folk music, rather than the 4- (or 8-) bar phrases typical of Western European music.

II. Land of Gloom [or Desolation], Land of Mists. This movement opens and closes with is a richly beautiful passage for the strings. But most of the movement is based on a single melody, first played hauntingly by the oboe and decorated by the flute with filigrees of sound that are uniquely Tchaikovskian, while the bassoon contributes a counter-theme. Next, violins and flutes take up the melody; the cellos have their own variant; then fragments of it get passed around among woodwinds and strings. Finally, in a blazing climax the horns play it in unison before the opening passage for strings returns.

III. Scherzo. Commentators hear the influence of Mendelssohn, perhaps his music for A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in the delicate, almost eerie, yet playful main section of the Scherzo. (The young Russian borrowed his material from the scherzo of a piano sonata he had written the year before but never published.) But the middle or Trio section is an utterly Tchaikovskian waltz, the first of a great many sweeping and passionate waltzes that would grace his ballets and so much else of his music. Following the return of the main section of the Scherzo the ghost of the waltz is heard before the music comes to a close.

IV. Finale. In an Andante lugubre introduction Tchaikovsky uses an actual Russian folk song, first heard in fragments before the violins play it in full. After a very hushed passage for lower strings and timpani the music accelerates to a triumphant theme marked Allegro maestoso. A fugal treatment of the theme (each statement entering in counterpoint to the previous statement) leads to a bold re-statement of the folk song, now urgent and forward-driving. The development section is also fugal—on quite a grand and dazzling scale—before the triumphant theme returns. But now the music slows down as the “lugubrious” fragments of the folk tune are heard again. This time the transition back to a fast tempo is different: it’s an impassioned passage for strings, backed by pulsings from the horns, which accelerates gradually to an exuberant new statement of the folk tune and a joyful conclusion.


Born Čačak, Serbia (former Yugoslavia), 22 February 1977.

Reflections, for violin and orchestra

First heard as a work for violin and piano, at Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall, 10 May 2009, with the composer on violin and Jasna Popovic, piano. The version for violin and orchestra was commissioned by the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, English horn, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 3 horns, trumpet, bass trombone, timpani, tubular bells, glockenspiel, harp, strings, and violin solo. Duration about 6½ minutes.

According to the composer, “The inspiration for the piece came about organically. I was reflecting on my life as a whole as well as specifically my family and friends. Reflecting on the past, present and future, I felt a sense of both sadness and hope, which informed my composition. In Reflections, the violin line is somewhat inspired by the melody of the traditional Serbian folk song “Djurdjevdan.”

Reflections opens calmly yet soulfully, with a steady pulse that will continue through the piece. Following the violin’s initial statements, a more rhapsodic passage for English horn and other woodwinds is heard, leading to a more impassioned section for the soloist. The work ends as it began, quietly, as if lost in reflections.

In its violin-piano version, Reflections has been used as music for an off-Broadway play, and in a piano-solo version it was used for a ballet called Flight by the NYC-based contemporary dance company TAKE Dance. Tonight’s performance is the world premiere of the version for violin and symphony orchestra.

RED, for orchestra

Originally written for string quartet with an optional additional instrument, RED was premiered by the string quartet ETHEL (with the composer as guest violinist) and flutist Robert Mirabal, 14 April 2011, at the Akron Art Museum. The version for full orchestra was commissioned by the South Shore Orchestra and first heard 31 May 2013 at the Ivy Tech Auditorium Theater, Valparaiso, Indiana, with Troy Webdell conducting. The score calls for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, harp, and strings. Performance time about 6½ minutes. 

The composer tells us that “Red is my favorite color. It is the color of the sunrise and the sunset. This color resonates with me, symbolizing love, passion, courage, vitality, beauty, and life.” Her work RED finds musical equivalents for the images, emotions and conditions conjured up by the color. Beginning softly, the music grows in intensity while the instrumental colors shift. After a blazing climax the piece gradually subsides into a kind of musical dusk.

Since its original composition RED itself has undergone a number of shifts in musical color, from its original version for string quartet and optional additional instrument to a version for string orchestra (premiered in Serbia by the serendipitously named Ensemble Metamorphosis, and later used as the score for a dance piece, Nakamuraya, choreographed by Takehiro Ueyama for Juilliard’s New Dances) and to the full symphonic orchestration heard tonight.

Viper Concerto, for Viper electric violin and orchestra

Tonight’s performance of the Viper Concerto is the world premiere. The work, commissioned by the Sheboygan Symphony Orchestra, is written for piccolo, 2 flutes, 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, snare drum, bass drum, cymbals, gong, tambourine, tubular bells, glockenspiel, harp, strings, and Viper electric violin solo. Performance time about 15 minutes.

As the composer/soloist explains, “The Viper is a hand-crafted and (in the case of my Viper) six-string, fretted electric violin with two ‘extra’ strings that extend the violin range lower into the bass clef. Its tone is warm and lush and, when used with pedals, the sonic vocabulary of Viper is extraordinarily rich. The Viper is in the shape of a flying ‘V’ and has a harness that gives the performer full freedom of movement while performing.”

She says of her composition: “Viper Concerto draws on a diverse musical vocabulary that includes elements of Western classical contemporary music, traditional Balkan music, Christian Orthodox music, Buddhist chants, popular musical genres, and improvisation. All of these elements serve as my creative platform for further exploration and expansion of the various soundscapes, melodies, harmonies, and rhythms. Several of the themes in the concerto are derived from my original composition for Viper and percussion which I premiered in 2013 in New York City with the Silk Road Ensemble’s percussionist Shane Shanahan. In my Viper Concerto I imagine Viper to represent a spirit, a soul that travels through time and space, from the times of our ancestors, through present and future, somehow bringing everything together in the course of its journey. In this work I was also particularly inspired to explore various ways in which I could incorporate percussion instruments. In many cultures percussion instruments carry a strong spiritual meaning. This work is possibly the first concerto ever written for Viper electric violin.”

The work is in one continuous movement but with many tempo changes and stirring solo passages for orchestra players as well as the Viper soloist.

Share this on: